Surprise votes send a message
In the ConVal and Jaffrey-Rindge school districts, voters unexpectedly shot down budgets on Tuesday. ConVal’s proposal was less than 1 percent higher than last year’s budget. Jaffrey-Rindge’s was about 3 percent more. Both districts had made staff reductions to help keep increases down. Attempts at both districts’ Deliberative Sessions to cut the budgets had been voted down by substantial margins.
So what happened on Tuesday?
Voter turnout is certainly one factor. In Jaffrey, where the budget passed, 587 people showed up, just 17 percent of the town’s registered voters. But in Rindge, 1,505 came out, 36 percent of the registered voters. And the negative vote in Rindge was enough to doom the budget.
ConVal numbers tell a similar story. Sixty-one percent of those who voted in Peterborough, which is by far the district’s largest town, favored the budget. But only 12 percent of Peterborough’s voters turned out. In Antrim, the second largest town, the controversial wind ordinance proposal helped boost voter turnout to 37 percent, and those Antrim voters supported the school budget with a 57 percent majority. But that turnout was rivaled by smaller towns where opposition to the ConVal budget was strong. In Temple, 49 percent of voters showed up, and only 19 percent of them favored the budget. In Greenfield, 34 percent came out, and just 23 percent favored the budget. In Francestown, of the 51 percent that voted, just 47 percent backed the budget.
Clearly, supporters of school budgets need to do a better job of getting voters to the polls. But it’s also clear that ordinary voters — not necessarily the ones who come to School Board meetings and Deliberative Sessions — are feeling the pinch this year. Not only did budgets fail. Voters in Jaffrey-Rindge also rejected a proposed teacher’s contract that would have given teachers a wage increase averaging about 2.25 percent. ConVal voters turned down every warrant article on the ballot, including a request for a maintenance tractor that even the Selectmen’s Advisory Committee supported.
We don’t believe the only solution is to do what the Mascenic School District did — bring in a budget that’s actually lower than the default budget, so there’s no logical reason for voters to turn it down. That’s really not practical most years.
But the message is that voters aren’t confident that school budgets are as tight as they could be. In the next few weeks, as both ConVal and Jaffrey-Rindge administrators and school board members grapple with how to pare down their expenses, we’ll find out if those voters are right.